Dr. Nichol’s Blog – Mouthy, Nippy, Chewy – Part 2


Fufu, the assertive and overconfident baby dog, arrived woefully unprepared for life in his new home. He was just 7 weeks old when he confused his new pet parents, Melissa and Jeremy, with 4 legged fuzzy playmates. He started nipping and rough-housing and treating them like his buds on day one. Showing a lack of proper respect for his leaders was a serious mistake on his part but, gee, he just didn’t know any better.

A bit more home-schooling in the fine art of social graces with humans would have made a difference. In an ideal world Fufu would have stayed with his mother and littermates until he was 12-14 weeks old. But, like too many canine toddlers, this little guy’s early social education ended too soon. This was not a fatal mistake but with misinformed pet parents he might have been punished instead of getting the coaching he needed in canine followership.

During my long career in veterinary medicine I’ve noticed that people seldom schedule appointments when their pets are completely fine. They bring them to me because of symptoms. Whether it’s coughing, limping, vomiting, or nipping and biting – people want the problem to stop. Anything that looks like aggression needs to stop 10 minutes ago.

Punishing bad behavior makes sense to many people, especially those who have read or heard that their dog will dominate them if they don’t lay down the law early. Really? This line of reasoning goes like this: If Fufu’s people failed to treat him like a violent felon he would boss them around and then eat them for dinner. OK, maybe nothing that serious. Lots of dogs engage in petty theft and vandalism around the house. Surely these miscreants would benefit from a strong lesson in subordination, right? No, actually they wouldn’t.

We’ve all heard the saying that dogs are man’s and woman’s best friends. It’s true. They love us. They are not here to establish world domination. Alpha rolls, pinning, scruffing, and shouting in the face of a dog of any age cannot bring out their best. There is a veritable trove of rapidly growing research on current learning theory as well as the internal workings of the canine brain. None of it supports harsh treatment as effective or humane, especially for a kid Fufu’s age.

I found it necessary to explain this concept to Melissa and Jeremy because one of them had the impression that their little baby of a dog needed hard lessons. Reality TV and Internet “experts” are delighted to demonstrate these methods. Lacking science-based training in canine behavior, coupled with “knowing dogs”, is not a winning formula. Be careful where you get your advice.

There are no scientific studies supporting the notion that dogs try to dominate their owners. But there is robust research that spells out the long term damage to the fear center of an intimidated dog’s brain and to its relationship with its person. When in doubt it’s best to ignore bad behavior until you’ve gathered credible information.

There are plenty of behavioral differences between humans and dogs but there are similarities too. Get ready for this one: Children and puppies who are treated harshly face an uphill climb if they aspire to be well-adjusted adults. Youngsters of either species who are raised with kindness end up doing a lot better. The correct treatment matters.

Symptoms originating in the brain (behavior problems) are similar to other physical disorders: If we’re really going to make a positive difference we have to figure out the cause. Symptomatic treatment alone (punishment, corrections, reprimands) just can’t bring lasting improvement.

If you’ve read this far you already know why Fufu was acting out: He lacked appropriate social skills. Our plan for helping him and his family was straight-forward. When he did the wrong thing he would temporarily lose his connection with them. And just as soon as he tried a better alternative, like being calm, he would be quietly reinforced.

The scientific name for this method is differential reinforcement. This means that undesirable behavior must be consistently and completely ignored and that desirable behavior must be consistently reinforced. Please read that sentence a second time; it is the essence of bringing out the best in any dog or cat. The strong foundation for this principle is operant conditioning. In plain English, this is trial and error learning.

Of everything Melissa and Jeremy would ever do to shape Fufu into a gentle and enjoyable pet this structure was the most important. Our dogs regard interactions with us as a high value resource. They know they need to earn everything including pets, kisses, and reassurance. They also feel strongly about survival. Even in an affluent home, dogs are sure that resources are scarce. They are built this way.

Think about that, would you? Our love and affection for our pets is limitless, isn’t it? Don’t they know that? Our children seem to. Why wouldn’t members of another species? Well, because they’re members of another species, that’s why. Dogs are not little people in furry suits. They are not human wannabees. There are differences. Dogs are certainly domestic pets but their brains are programmed to survive in the wild in canine-specific ways, no matter where or with whom they live.

Here’s why this principle should matter to all dog parents. Your dog believes that you, just like a real dog who leads a free-living canine social group, control his/her access to all resources. This includes interactions with you. If your hairy little subordinate does the right thing you need to notice so you can reward his desirable behavior with petting, a kind word, a tid bit, whatever.

Dogs want to work for resources. They’re hard-wired to believe that everything is a privilege. They are confused if they are not expected to perform before getting what they want. To bring out Fufu’s sweet side his people needed to wrap their brains around just how important human interaction was to the kid. He is a member of a really, really social species. He really, really loved interacting with Melissa and Jeremy. So if his naughty behavior crossed a line (nipping, mouthing, or jumping) they were to briefly (several seconds) withhold all interaction as a negative punishment. Wait a minute, isn’t all punishment negative? Who likes it?

If you took math in school you may remember that negative numbers aren’t bad numbers, they are simply subtracted. An action qualifies as punishment if it occurs immediately following an undesirable behavior, is applied consistently (every time), and reduces the frequency of that behavior. Melissa and Jeremy provided negative punishment by removing their attention from undesirable behavior immediately – every time. The clear message to young Fufu: You screw-up and you lose (briefly). But – when a quick glance from a leader showed a cute puppy who was not mouthing, nipping, and jumping-up they were to very quietly reinforce – every time.

Why such quiet reinforcement? I thought you’d never ask. Dogs don’t miss much. If your body signaling indicates a calm emotional state your dog will follow suit. Every time Fufu behaved like a nutball and then calmed himself even a little he needed a peaceful example to follow.

Our dogs have one eye on us pretty much all the time. They watch for behavioral cues because they rely on us for survival. Forget that big sack of dog food in your pantry; your dog believes that a famine will occur in about 20 minutes. You are the knight on the big white stallion who will assure his survival.

Fufu wanted very much to earn interactions with his people. He is an operant, trial and error, learner, after all. When he stepped out of line he got so completely ignored for several seconds that he feared he might die of neglect. When he tried a different behavior, like stopping his mouthy, nippy, jumpy nonsense, he immediately earned a peaceful connection with his good people.

A lot of pet parents get this wrong. If Melissa and Jeremy made the mistake of reprimanding behavior they didn’t want, the take-away for Fufu would have been that he had just earned their attention even if it was loud and violent. He might even think they were playing when they pushed him away. Any response would have been a reinforcer. And what gets rewarded gets repeated.

I told Melissa and Jeremy to repeat the ignoring, then reinforcement ritual hundreds of times. Sure, alpha rolls and other forms of aversive punishment would have been faster but after my little heart-to-heart with them they agreed that scaring the bejesus out of Fufu was indeed a bad idea.

My point was this: Unconditional kindness provides us time to think and gather information. Anger and retribution can lead to fear and defensive aggression. But not always. Some creatures don’t fight back. They develop learned helplessness. This is a state of emotional withdrawal. The animal accepts that it cannot escape punishment and so it stops trying. Healthy operant learning dies, along with the joy of life.

This miserable state is considered success by people who lack understanding of canine body signaling and welfare. Advocates of aversive punishment have pronounced cowering dogs as having submitted to their leader’s dominance. Melissa and Jeremy did not want this. They were on-board with current learning theory, with kindness, and a great life for their new dog.

So how in the world can you ignore a whirling dervish of a pointy-toothed mauler of any size? Don’t you have to do something? Next week I’ll share the nuts and bolts of exactly how it’s done. And, by the way, differential reinforcement works well because it plays right into the innate behaviors of dogs. We never tried to teach Fufu to speak human. Melissa and Jeremy brought out his best by using the same method his mother would. The kid caught on quickly. But they still had to repeat hundreds of times.

Facebook Live event:
Do your pets crack under holiday pressure? You can ask me anything or just listen in during my Facebook Live event, called “Pet Angst: Naughty or Nice?” at 6 PM Mountain Time on Wednesday, December 19. Go to Facebook.com/drjeffnichol. Invite your friends. Together we’ll reach peace on earth.

I hope you’ve found this information helpful. You’re welcome to share this blog with any of your dog-loving friends. Each week I share a short video, a podcast, or a blog to help bring out the best in pets and their people. You can sign up at no charge on my website www.drjeffnichol.com. And when you do, I’ll send you my free at-home pet first aid and CPR guide. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.